Are the Straights Okay?

Casual banter among queer folks complaining about systemic oppression is often interpreted by non-queer people as an attack. This kind of defensiveness is tone-deaf and derails the conversation, but it's indicative of a larger pattern of miscommunication between queer folks and allies who are theoretically on the same side.

There’s a lot of contempt for cisgender heterosexual (cishet) people in queer communities. Queer people regularly face discrimination from cishet people, and they tend to feel safer in queer spaces where they can be surrounded by people like them who “get it.” These are spaces where queer people can vent about the discrimination, erasure, invalidation, and exclusion they’ve faced, typically at the hands of cishet people. These spaces—especially the more exclusive ones which are less accepting of outsiders—can often become echo chambers where “the cis” and “the straights” are demonized.

In response, a lot of cishet people feel like they’re being unfairly attacked. People who consider themselves to be allies of—or at least indifferent toward—the LGBT movement argue that they’re being undeservedly roped in with transphobes and homophobes. Some feel like they’re being attacked for their orientation, complaining that they’re being made to feel like it’s “not okay” to be cisgender or heterosexual. This reaction isn’t completely unjustified. When someone is at least making an effort to be inclusive and accepting, it can be frustrating to be generalized about like this. Also, this reaction puts all the blame on cishet people specifically, when much of the discrimination and erasure queer people face comes from other queer people.

This response, in turn, prompts more ridicule from queer communities. When cishet people complain that not all cishets are homophobic or transphobic, it really annoys queer people for a couple of reasons. First, they already know this. Most queers don’t actually believe that all cishets are evil. Second, this kind of rebuttal derails the conversation. It comes across as cishet people trying to make the conversation about them, when these exchanges typically happen in the context of conversations about the marginalization of queer people. Third, people in positions of privilege victimizing themselves is a really tone-deaf response. Even when these people do have a leg to stand on (which I think they do in this case), complaining to a group of marginalized minorities about how you feel discriminated against for being in a privileged majority typically isn’t going to be well-received. #NotAllMen is an example of this phenomenon; it started as a criticism of feminists who make generalizations about men, and was later reappropriated by feminists to mock men to try to derail conversations about misogyny and sexism.

A lot of the animosity between queer and non-queer people comes down to a few rotten eggs. There are cishet people who hate queer people (obviously), and there are queer people who hate cishet people. This causes problems because people conflate the voices of a small, vocal minority with those of an entire group. Many people have a bad habit of treating other demographics like a hivemind; one person says something out of line and everyone assumes they speak for their entire group. A lot of the arguing follows the back-and-forth pattern outlined above; Homophobes and transphobes oppress queer people, queer people protest (rightfully), cishet allies (who are not the subject of their protest) get defensive, and queer people mock them for it. It’s a terrible routine that repeats itself constantly and does nothing to help build bridges between the groups.

This sort of mutual misunderstanding is exemplified by a common joke in queer communities: “Are the straights okay?”. This meme is a good case study on how animosity grows between communities where there should be none—in this case, between queer people and their allies. The meme is often interpreted by people outside the community as an attack on cishet people (“What’s wrong with straight people?”), when it’s actually intended as a show of genuine concern (“Are straight people doing alright?”).

The concern comes from the belief that cishet people are more vulnerable to toxic heteronormativity, and the meme is used to point out examples of toxic heteronormativity and sympathize with the cishet people who have fallen victim to it. Toxic heteronormativity can take many forms, but often involves enforcing traditional gender roles and sexist attitudes toward love and romance. The question “Are the straights okay?” isn’t intended to make fun of cishet people or blame them for these problems, but to express sympathy for the people who have to live with these toxic attitudes.

Now obviously queer people aren’t immune to toxic behavior in their relationships. There is a common belief within the community, however, that they’re less prone to it. The rationale is that queer people have already had to let go of these societally imposed attitudes and the associated emotional baggage in the process of coming out and accepting themselves. Being queer teaches you things about gender, sexuality, and relationships that you might not otherwise learn. More importantly, it helps you unlearn some of the toxic attitudes that society teaches all of us.

Cishets misunderstanding the purpose of the meme “Are the straights okay?” is part of a larger trend where many cishet people feel personally attacked when queer people protest larger societal issues. Issues like toxic heteronormativity and the patriarchy were created by cishet people, sure, but blaming them on our cishet allies is like blaming the holocaust on Angela Merkel. When queer people protest toxic social norms and expectations, they are not protesting cishet allies. In fact, these issues harm cishet people as much as they do queer people. This is similar to how many people assume that feminism is the struggle of women against men, when feminism is actually the struggle of people (of all genders) against the patriarchy (which harms all of us).

The point here isn’t that cishet people need to be more queer. There’s nothing wrong with being cisgender or heterosexual—something cishet people don’t hear from this community enough. Cishet people need to realize that most queer people aren’t trying to make harmful generalizations, but rather protest the injustice they’ve faced and the problems that plague society as a whole. Queer people need to learn that when their protest is misconstrued as an ad hominum attack, accusing cishets of derailing the conversation by complaining—even if that is indeed what they’re doing—isn’t helpful. While it’s true that these sorts of complaints are by and large coming from positions of privilege, dismissing and mocking them does nothing to gain public support.

We need to build bridges—not walls.